Travelblog#20: Pelni boat to Makassar – Indonesia

25th-28th October, 2014

The Pelni boat was an interesting experience. Definitely not the most comfortable mode of travel I have ever been on, but it was a necessary step I needed to take to reach the next stage of my journey.

I was heading to Sulawesi; the land of post-Wallace Line jungles, and the Tana Toraja tribes, with their peculiar funerary customs and fairy-tale landscape of megalithic monuments. There is even supposed to be some of Asia’s best scuba diving there.

But first I had to get there. On a Pelni boat. It was either that or spend a small fortune on a domestic flight from Flores. And, anyway, I kind of felt that I should take a Pelni boat at least once while I was in Indonesia, as it was just part of the experience.

Roy, Kate (my two travelling companions) and I left bright and early in the morning, having been advised to turn up two hours prior to planned departure time. The departure time is, apparently, an arbitrary thing for Pelni boats. I have heard first-hand stories of them leaving so early people get left behind, on occasion.

On the day we were sailing it was, however, late. Very late.


It was hot on the dock of Maumere. When we got there there was still no sign of the ferry on the horizon and the heat was starting to get to us, so we set ourselves up for a long wait. Kate and Roy arranged their sarongs as a makeshift sun-shade.


We waited like this for a few hours, but at around midday the heat became unbearable so we retreated into one of the waiting rooms.


After seven hours of delay, the Pelni boat arrived in the mid-afternoon.


There was a mad scramble as everyone fought their way to get on board. Some of the local youngsters had a slightly different approach:


The interior was dark, musky, humid, and slightly resembled a concentration camp, but it wasn’t too bad. I had been expecting much, much worse.


It was a bit of a dog-eat-dog world in there. When we first arrived two men were sat in our spaces. They pretended to not understand when we showed them our tickets, and it took us a while to get them to move. Our sleeping mats had already been taken by other passengers. The conductors, who occasionally wandered around to make sure there were no stowaways, didn’t seem interested in restoring order.

There weren’t many white people on board so for the first hour or so we were stared at, a lot. They eventually grew bored of this though, and resumed normal activity. Some of them became quite friendly and made conversation with us.


I slept most of the journey, aided by my last bottle of arak I had smuggled on board from Flores. In the morning I went for a little walk around the upper decks just before the boat pulled into Makassar. It was a relief to finally leave.


I am not a big fan of cities. As a traveller I generally see them as transport hubs I have no choice but pass through to reach the places I love; jungles, tribal villages, temples, mountains, and beaches. I can count very few cities that I have actually liked. Taipei, Kuching, Luang Prabang, Chiang Mai, Phomn Pehn – maybe.

That said, I actually found Makassar quite pleasant. It was fairly clean, it didn’t feel overcrowded, and the people were friendly. It was, admittedly, a little short on sights to see – Fort Rotterdam took me all of ten minutes to walk around before I got a little bored – but Makassar definitely had something.


We stayed there for three days. Kate had a spider bite on her leg which went a bit nasty and needed treatment, and Roy needed to get his laptop repaired. While I waited I caught up with things on the internet and took the odd wander around the streets.

When this was all done we decided it was time to head north on the night-bus, so we caught a bemo to the station. After buying our tickets we took a wander. Roy and I bought a beer each, and we found a nice little outdoor restaurant to eat dinner.

The mood was quite merry. Kate’s leg was on the mend, Roy’s laptop had been fixed, and the three of us were about to venture to Tana Toraja; one of the places which had inspired us to come to Indonesia in the first place.

And then Roy realised that, while we had been eating, his bag had been snatched.

Laptop, money, three cards, an e-reader, and – most critically – his passport. We ran around frantically, trying to find it, asking people if they had seen anyone running off with a bag. It was useless. I think we all knew that Roy wouldn’t see any of those things again.

It also became obvious that Roy could not board the bus. He had to cancel his cards, make a police report, and he was probably going to have to make his way to the nearest embassy (which was in Jakarta).

Kate and I were both tempted to stay and help him, but he told us that we should go because there wasn’t really anything we could do. He was right: he’s perfectly capable and staying behind would have just felt like sympathy. I think he would have hated that.

So, we gave him a hug, wished him luck, and boarded the bus.

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